20 September 2007

Gospel order revisited

When Ken Comfort at Reedwood Friends Church asked me to to speak on accountability last Sunday, I thought to myself, "Oh, good, no sweat -- I can use a sermon I gave seven years ago on 'Gospel order.'" However, when I re-read that old sermon, I didn't get an inward confirmation. Much of the material was focused on situations in the year 2000, so the old sermon didn't really save me any work. It was only useful for the Fox quotations that it included.

My new sermon went something like this:

...He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. [Ephesians 1:9-10]

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:15-20]

Do you uphold the standards of Friends? Are you careful in appointing officers and Sunday school teachers, in calling pastors and special speakers, in sending out missionaries and recording ministers, to see that they are in harmony with the principles of Friends as stated in the Faith and Practice of Northwest Yearly Meeting? [NWYM Faith and Practice, Query 8]
There was once a Friends meeting which had a prominent professional man, as one of its informal leaders. He was nearly at retirement age, so he’d been a weighty Friend in that meeting for many years.

There was just one problem: he had a sharp tongue. He was notorious for his stage whispers during monthly meeting. Two groups in particular were targets for his wit: newcomers and women in leadership. For example, a newcomer asked a question during meeting for business, something we always hope will happen. They’re truly interested! Stage whisper: “He doesn’t know that by now?” Another time, they were talking about the job description for one of the pastoral interns. Stage whisper: “I suppose she expects to be paid for that.”

When people complained, usually they were told one of two things: The complainers were too sensitive—in other words, the victims were the problem—and that this Friend was an important and weighty member of the community, and furthermore his wife was a kind person whose feelings must not be hurt. So, if someone complained, it was implied, the offender would become the victim! For a long time, nobody seemed to point out that the victim and offender roles were being reversed, or that it might actually be a kindness to point out to this member that he was hurting people, and give him a chance to show that this was not his intention.

However, eventually someone pressed the issue, and it came to the elders. For some in this Friends meeting, that was the moment when Gospel order stopped being an ideal, a nice Quaker cliché, and became an operational reality. As a well-known phrase in Quakerese, "Gospel order" can be a brick in the linguistic wall that we Friends, just like any other group with a long history, can unintentionally set up and that ends up keeping others at a distance. But the actual concept is of crucial importance in understanding the spirituality of Friends in community.

George Fox, whose preaching and writing and community organizing back in the 1600’s got our movement started, put Gospel order firmly in the context of the power and name of Christ. In 1656, he wrote,
I charge you in the Presence of the Living God, dwell in his Power, that with his Power ye may be carried along to minister to all the Spirits Imprisoned by the Deceit.... So, in the Power of the Lord Jesus Christ preach the Everlasting Gospel, that by his Power the Sick may be healed, the Leprous cleansed, the Dead raised, the Blind Eyes opened, and the Devils cast out. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ go on, that that of God in all Consciences may witness, that ye are sent of God, and are of God; and so according to that speak, to bring up all into the Head Christ, and into the Life, which gave forth the Scriptures; for there’s the Unity, and out of it is the Confusion.
The simplest definition of Gospel order is that our lives as disciples and as a Church reflects the presence of the Lord in our midst. In other words, our decisions and actions reflect our trust in this reality, and that this trusting obedience brings us into unity, and this unity results in confrontations with the author of confusion, and results in powerful ministry that in turn results in healing and liberation.

This is a lovely picture, but those of you who’ve grown up in the church know that the church is primarily populated by human beings, who have an infinite variety of ways of falling out of unity with each other. Not only don’t I behave in ways that you want me to, not only do you behave in ways I don’t want you to, but the ways we complain about each other’s behavior usually adds to the problem, and takes away from the church’s unity. 

Matthew’s Gospel, in the section of Chapter 18 we’ve already heard, sets out how we’re supposed to deal with differences among us and with reports that we hear about each other. Here there’s nothing sentimental or abstract. Nothing should be alleged to third parties until the complainer has dealt directly with the offender. If that fails, then return with two or three others, privately, as George Fox emphasized in his commentaries on Matthew 18. For example, listen to the lovely commentary he wrote in 1669:

If there happen any difference between Friend and Friend, let them speak to one another; and, if they will not hear, let them take two or three of the meeting they belong to, that they may end it, if they can. And if they cannot end it, then it may be laid before the Monthly Meeting. And if it cannot be ended there, then it may be brought to the Quarterly Meeting, and there let it be put to half a dozen Friends, that they may end it, that they may keep their meetings quiet.
Or, they that are at difference, may choose three Friends, and Friends may choose three more to them, and let them stand to their judgment: for there are few, that love quietness and peace, who will have their names brought to a Monthly or Quarterly Meeting, to have their names sounded over the country, that they are in strife; but will rather endeavor to end it among themselves or at their own meeting, before that they come to the Monthly Meeting.
. . .
And all such as behold their brother or sister in a transgression, do not go in a rough, light, or upbraiding spirit, to reprove or admonish him or her, but in the power of the Lord, and spirit of the Lamb, and in the wisdom and love of the truth, which suffers thereby, to admonish such an offender. So may the soul of such a brother or sister be seasonably and effectually reached unto and overcome, and they may have cause to bless the name of the Lord on their behalf, and so a blessing may be rewarded into the bosom of that faithful and tender brother or sister that so admonished them.

Matthew’s Gospel and George Fox’s commentaries presuppose that these offenses occur among people who have roughly equivalent amounts of power, or the offenses involve a person’s public behavior that threatens the reputation of the church. When one person has power and control over another, the victim may not be at all in a position to confront the abuser privately. In the church, that’s what the elders are for—to provide the safety and healing that’s essential to keeping trust and obedience real. For anyone who has been betrayed, trust remains a nice abstraction until you—the church community—do what it takes to provide that healing and create that safety. That’s why the elders of that meeting with the sharp-tongued member could no longer dodge the issue. They appointed a pair of people who spoke with him, and he was also required to give up his church responsibilities for a season.

I love how Fox talks about the spirit in which we deal with offenders—“in the power of the Lord, and spirit of the Lamb, and in the wisdom and love of the truth.” That instruction to act “in the power of God” reflects how Gospel order constantly links back to the cosmic context, God’s purpose of unity in heaven and on earth. Just as the offender threatens that unity, a half-baked or politicized remedy may also threaten it.

Gospel order, as reflected in church disciplines, isn’t limited just to dealing with disruptions. There was a Friends meeting in which two members, a husband and wife, who wanted to bring their tax witness against paying for war into the accountability of the church. For years, they had been keeping back that part of their taxes that went to the military budget, and paying that money into an escrow fund maintained by Friends for that purpose. But, number one, that’s not legal, and number two, they and their children faced hardships should the Internal Revenue Service come in and seize their bank accounts or their property.

This couple came to the elders and agreed to submit to the decisions of the church regarding their witness and how they carried it out. The meeting was made up of respectable and law-abiding people, including a number of lawyers, and was probably heavily Republican. Its only well-known yellow-dog Democrat had moved to a retirement home in Toledo shortly before this issue came up. Even so, when the monthly meeting heard how these Friends understood their convictions as being directly related to their understanding of the Lordship of Christ in their lives, the Monthly Meeting not only united with them but agreed to send witnesses to any legal proceeding that might happen, and to help with supplies and transportation should they be levied. And the elders set up a subcommittee to counsel others in the meeting who were feeling similar convictions.

More recently, I appreciated the Web-based discussion begun by Richard M of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), who implemented a contemporary form of Gospel order when, as he says, he "printed up copies of all my posts and made them available to the entire body of Ministers, Elders and Overseers who met at Yearly Meeting sessions this summer. If anything I’ve written poorly represents North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative, I want to be informed promptly of the problem."

Early Friends understood their structure, their organizational chart, as reflecting the unity desired by God. The church is simply the people who’ve put their lives in God’s hands, who’ve experienced God’s forgiveness, and now live together to keep themselves and each other in that Godly unity, with Jesus himself as the only head of the church. Let’s do a reality check—is there any other reason to meet together as we do every Sunday morning, meet monthly for business, give our money, serve on committees, and educate our children? In pursuing this simple vision of the church, early Friends didn’t set up a hierarchy or priestly caste—all leadership is functional and accountable, based on spiritual gifts of the leaders and the needs of the group. So, for example, Fox says,
And now, that Monthly and Quarterly Meetings of two or three out of every particular meeting of true and faithful Friends are set up, and kept in the most convenient place in the middle of your county, you may know in your meetings of the wants and necessities of all Friends, whether in bonds, or out, widows or fatherless, or aged people, their necessities being looked into, and everyone feeling one another’s condition; this keeps in tenderness and love, as a family; and nothing being lacking among you, then all is well, every want and necessity being supplied. And by this, one meeting may be serviceable to another in outward things, for that is the least love; and by this you may come into the practice of the pure religion, which is to relieve the widows, strangers; fatherless, and helpless.

... Now concerning them that do go to the Quarterly Meeting, they must be substantial Friends, that can give a testimony of your sufferings, and how things are among you in every particular meeting. [Epistle 264]
Here the call is not for people of power, but of knowledge, perspective and tenderness, to represent the local circle of disciples to the wider circles of regional and yearly meetings and beyond, so that our unity can be based not on forms or churchy happy-talk but on a true picture of the progress and needs of the church. And always, as Fox says, “...let the authority of your men and women’s meetings be in the power of God; for every heir of the power has right to that authority, and in it keep the King of kings and Lord of lords’ peace in his church. ... And the least member in the church has an office, and is serviceable; and every member has need one of another.”

Now we can see why Fox saw Matthew 18:15-20 as one continuous teaching. It’s not that verses 15 through 17, the part about responding to offenses, are rules for discipline, and 18 through 20 about the earthly-heavenly linkage when two or three are gathered, is abstract piety. The body that ministers in accountability is the body that meets together with the authority that comes from the power of God. With that authority, everyone who listens to Jesus’ teachings, including Reedwood Friends Church, can permit or forbid or make requests to God for the good of the church. We can call and support pastors, knowing that they help us stay accessible and on course as a church. We hold them accountable for a truthful witness to our beliefs and practices and for their part in extending the hospitality of the church. They hold us accountable for living in accordance with what we claim to believe! Likewise, we appoint officers and elders and hold them accountable for their stewardship, and they hold us accountable for the commitments we make, and for the use of our spiritual gifts. We can appoint people to assemble with others at quarterly meeting or at yearly meeting to consider what God is doing and wants to do on a wider scale. And we can appoint public Friends to go to Russia, just to choose a random example, and you hold us accountable that the life we live and the message we carry is consistent with the faith and practice of Friends; and we hope we can hold you accountable for supporting us adequately, thinking of us when you hear news of Russia, and praying for us, because we’re going into a situation with great opportunities and very little security.

So Gospel order means we live as disciples and as a church with Jesus at the center, in a unity of faith and practice, in a unity of heaven and earth. It turns from theory to practice, not just when look for accountability in conflict, but also in the very ways we organize ourselves, relate to civil authority, choose our leaders, and deploy our missionaries. Certainly, we know we’re bound to stumble sometimes. But when we do, our Christ-centered Quaker community of ministers can be spiritually prepared to administer a Gospel-order vision of accountability: suffering with us, creating safety, rebuilding trust, and restoring unity.

I've never done what Richard did with his blog, "A Place to Stand"--namely submit posts to elders of the Yearly Meeting--but I often wonder about the place of very political posts in a spiritual blog such as mine claims to be. I think it is desperately important to connect the dots between faith and practice; the stakes may be nothing less than a confrontation with forces of confusion, oppression, and death, as in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But even a passionate witness must be conducted with humility and in a spirit of dialogue, taking into account the possibility that someone else might connect the dots very differently.

For a long time, I have suspected that, across the full spectrum of Quakers, when we are truly centered in the Holy Spirit, we're quite close, despite our outward differences. Our most dramatic differences are not at that centered place, but in the counterfeit Quakerisms that we set up to conceal our lack of faith in the real thing. Liberal Quakers (to risk using a shorthand category) have one set of characteristic counterfeits, and evangelical Quakers have another set.

I'm tempted to describe these counterfeits, but right now that would be a tangent! My point is that, when we go into the realm of politics, I think that there, too, people of genuine goodwill are not as far apart as it would appear from the polarizing theatrics that too often substitute for dialogue. Idealists on the right think that merit, effort, and voluntary agreements outweigh all theories of communal obligation. They think that the left is a web of groups whose social ideals hide their desires for unmerited, illegitimate, and unsustainable transfers of resources out of the pockets of those who earned them. They also suspect that the left doesn't know how the world really works: beyond our borders, the whole world waits to pounce on those same resources and their global sources.

Idealists on the left want to correct systemic social distortions caused by wealth and embedded elitism. Left thinks Right is less worried about merit and values than about preserving their social advantages, and that the myth of the honest, independent, hard-working individual blinds the Right to (1) structural disadvantages and society's obligations to compensate, (2) the dangers of extending the metaphor nationally and internationally as we uncritically see ourselves as having unique merit, being the sole honest, independent, hard-working superpower.

What's interesting is not how different these are but how compatible and complementary their core arguments are; the big differences are in the suspicions of the "other." When those mutual suspicions become the substance of politics rather than the occasion for sincere dialogue, the stage is set for poisonous polarizations.

For many of us, political concerns are actually spiritual concerns with particular implications for discipleship and practice. But the responsibility remains to discern whether my expression of political urgency comes from my center, is stated with humility, and avoids demonizing people with whom I may strenuously disagree. That's wny I sometimes hesitate to cite or link to other commentators whose arguments I admire greatly but who may not have the same hesitations about slamming their (my) political opponents. With that caveat in mind, I want to cite a particular commentator, James Carroll, whose remarks on "American fundamentalisms" seem to me to contain very important reflections on the spiritual dimension of our distorted imperial politics. Sample quotation from his interview with Tom Engelhardt:
Tom, here's the thing that's important to acknowledge: If Americans are upset with the war in Iraq today, it's mainly because it failed. If we could have "ended evil" with this war, it would have been a good thing. It goes back to the joke you began with: If we have to destroy the world in order to purify it of evil, that's all right. It's the key to the apocalyptic mindset that Robert J. Lifton has written about so eloquently, in which the destruction of the Earth can be an act of purification. The destruction of Iraq was an act of purification. Even today, look at the rhetoric that's unfolding as we begin to talk about ending the war in Iraq. It's the Iraqis who have failed. They wouldn't yield on their "sectarian" agendas. These people won't get together and form a cohesive government. Now, we're going to let them stew in their own mess. We're going to withdraw from this war because they're not worthy of us.

That's the mainstream Democratic antiwar position! America is a city on a hill, exceptional; so, if we do it, by definition it must be virtuous. If we've gone to Iraq and all hell's broken loose, it may be a fiasco, but in origin it can't be our fault because we were motivated by good intentions.

Saturday PS: Today I posted an attempt to apply Gospel order to Friends United Meeting and the Baltimore Yearly Meeting FUM representatives' report from August 2007.

Update: What is the actual nature of God's order?

For dessert: Chuck Berry with advice to a famous composer.


Martin Kelley said...

Thanks for this post. We had a similar Quaker "character" in a meeting I was involved with once. He would make up his own rules, badmouth people he disagreed with behind their backs and ascribe motives to others that were unfair and inaccurate. Everyone in the meeting agreed his actions were disruptive and that informal hinting around to him about his behavior wasn't working. But no one was willing to do anything more. People started leaving and the meeting really hasn't recovered.

There really is something of a lack of faith in all this, isn't there? We don't believe that disruptive members can change. We don't trust our own processes for dealing with conflict. We don't think our meeting community and it's right discernment will be affected by individual behavior.

I was one of the leavers. It wasn't that I was terminally upset by this fellow; I just realized the meeting didn't take itself very seriously. I did my part to try to talk to him but it wasn't my role (my wife was one of the targets & I was serving as clerk) and besides, you can't do this on your own--gospel order and experience really does dictate that when things get to this level it needs to be an appointed committee with the power to censure.

Thanks too for your discussion on the relation between politics and spirituality and even on the kind of counterfeit Quakerisms that we've built up to conceal our lack of faiths. I think this is part of what the Convergent conversation is trying to cut through and it's definitely one of the goals of QuakerQuaker. I haven't heard it phrased this way, which I think is an interesting way to look at it.

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Anonymous said...

I just realized the meeting didn't take itself very seriously.

Thank you, Martin, for this. This is a revelatory statement for me! I was led to leave a meeting that had turned to sand in the face of conflict and disruptive people, and this sentence of yours helps me to further understand what happened there.

Much to think about and pray on here. And thank you, Johan, for the initiating post.

RichardM said...

Thanks for your long and thoughtful take on the accountability issue. I had been feeling a bit self-conscious about that last post of mine because I was afraid I had come across as a bit of a scold and may even have hurt some feelings. But I did feel that I needed to make the point that the RSOF isn't just a bunch of individuals, it is a corporate body and we need to take that fact seriously. I'm glad you could emphasize that point in a gentler way.

Johan Maurer said...

As with many of the things that I post on my blog, the commenters make the post ten times more useful. Thanks, Friends!

Richard, I didn't experience any scolding tone in your item; I strongly agreed with what you said originally. That brings up a related case from my own recent blog experience: several times I've told FUM leaders about my blog entries concerning FUM. I considered doing so again when I posted the "what's really wrong with FUM" items, and then decided not to. I think that this is a borderline example--a case could be made, strictly based on Gospel order, that I should have notified them, or perhaps even pre-cleared the items with them. However, I was also extremely curious about a couple of interrelated issues: first of all, how self-contained is this Friendly blog community? (Does anything achieve escape velocity into the wider arena of inter-Quaker conversations?) And would any defense of FUM arise spontaneously, unprompted by me, either from within or from outside that blog community? Now that I have at least a partial answer to that latter question (no), I'm pondering whether I have additional responsibilities or should simply pray the serenity prayer and drop the whole thing.

Anonymous said...


I'm delurking to say thank you for this--it spoke to my condition. Our meeting has not always had the most consistent relationship with Gospel Order, and at times we have suffered because of it. But I believe we are at a place where we are more ready to engage with it authentically, and this piece gives me some good information to draw from.

One comment on a comment, for Martin: With all due respect, you seem a bit cavalier meetings not taking themselves seriously with regards to the "bad behavior." In our meeting, "bad behavior" that is not due to inexperience or naivete is almost always due to some form of mental illness. We have labored long and hard with many such cases, and lost many seasoned Friends to "burn-out" from dealing with these issues. How do we create a loving, caring community that holds EVERYONE accountable, even those who, as our General Secretary terms it "spread their pain around the meeting?" I don't know the answer, but I hardly think it can be dismissed by the blanket statement that our meeting lacks the faith to try harder.

In the Light,


Anonymous said...

The dispute-resolution provisions of Matthew 18 are pleasing to contemplate in the abstract. They are so very sensible! But when one is actually tangled in a difficult relationship, one can find that they are not so easy to apply.

For one thing, the way Matthew 18:15ff is written — "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault...", etc. — presumes that the person reading this passage is in the right and the other person is in the wrong. But real-life problematic relationships are, alas, not often so one-sided. There is generally some plausible logic to justify the behavior on both sides.

Sometimes the person reading Matthew 18:15ff, and attempting to apply it, comes to find out that he (or she) is no more in the right than the person on the other side is, and that the other person has no interest in following the provisions of Matthew 18:15ff because the other person regards herself (himself) as totally justified. At that point the whole dispute-resolution process breaks down. What seemed at first to be a situation solvable by simply following the Matthew 18:15ff precepts, becomes a situation in which one gropes, and prays (often desperately) for a way forward, any way forward at all.

There is also the fact that, in many difficult relationships, the behavior causing the problem is behavior so ingrained, or so compulsive, that it cannot readily be reined in. Few people have the patience to endure compulsive behavior that hurts them for any length of time. Usually it is easier to break off the relationship in anger, an act that tears the community itself apart. No wonder the whole world is fragmented!

The basic principles of Matthew 18:15ff are very good ones: don't go behind a person's back until you have tried working it out directly with him; don't involve more people than are needed for a truly constructive approach; don't write anyone off until all possible avenues to a solution have been given an honest try. But truly working through a difficult interpersonal problem generally calls for more than just these principles. It also calls for a strong commitment to working things out on all sides, and for tremendous patience, too: a willingness to somehow bear with the problem behavior, and straighten out whatever messes that behavior gives rise to, again and again, until such time as that behavior can be genuinely unlearned and transformed.

— That, I think, just might be why the dispute-resolution provisions of Matthew 18:15ff are followed by the teaching to be willing to forgive your brother seventy times seven times!

All these considerations also apply to problems between two groups, as for example Friends United Meeting (the agency) and Baltimore Yearly Meeting's FUM representatives. Only there, since the problem behavior on either side is behavior shared and mutually reinforced within a group, it can be all the harder to change.

Is Baltimore YM ready to forgive FUM (the agency) seventy times seven times? Is FUM (the agency) ready to forgive Baltimore YM that many times? It may well take such endless patience to work things through.

I don't think it's a mere convention that causes us to refer to such patience as "the patience of saints" —